Sunday, April 20, 2014


Jasmine blooming in the side yard
This being Easter weekend, the ruminations of this lapsed Lutheran lapse a bit into the liturgical. Continued below are excerpts from the journal I've been keeping since leaving the hospital. Weigh what you find lightly. 

3/10/14. There are moments of fear about what lies ahead, but I almost automatically turn back to the present moment. So I write here that it’s another flawless morning, the sun breaking brightly on San Jacinto, the air utterly still after brisk breezes. I open doors and windows, and turn on the patio fountain. True, I can feel a little anxious when I sense something unexpected, like discomfort along the incision that’s supposed to be healing in my scalp. But dismissing alarm comes as easily as turning to another distraction, especially reading or writing. If there’s a heaven, as someone has said, I’ll be disappointed if there isn’t a library.

3/11/14. At yesterday’s visit with the radiation oncologist, she regaled us with stories of med school worthy of a stand-up routine, and again revised upward the window of possible years that a more aggressive treatment may offer me. I welcome this development as a challenge I had not anticipated—a long-term pushback against the cancer that redefines the time to come. Rather than some graceful submission to a fate beyond my powers to avert, life becomes a whole new enterprise. I like the prospects of that.

Our ocotillo
With my Lutheran upbringing, cancer finds me reading books on spiritual matters once thoughtfully read and found now tucked away on the shelves. And then there’s the devotional material that comes my way, intended to be spiritually uplifting—like from the nice folks who leave religious tracts in my screen door.

Maybe months before my diagnosis, someone, for no reason I can remember, had me subscribing to a daily email meditation from a Franciscan priest steeped in the mystics. Its unexpected angle on ultimate things intrigued me and became a surprisingly apt and welcome perspective when I became a cancer patient. I can even hear that rebel Martin Luther telling me from somewhere, “You oughtta listen to this man” (or however that would sound in medieval German).

One book I’ve kept over the years is a signed collection of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer by a theologian, Helmut Thielicke. Being German, they are a bit heavy-handed, but for me the man had street creds. They were first spoken in the bombed out remains of a church in the days following the war, by a survivor who had been hounded by the Gestapo. He knew well the valley of the shadow of death. Originating in a shattered and traumatized world, his voice possesses authority to speak to the subject of loss and suffering.

A whole lotta white oleander in a neighbor's yard
By contrast, I sense that many who have plenty to say about life and death have little basis in actual felt experience. With their preachy tone, they have all the answers and can point to chapter and verse, but are not asking the right questions. It is reassuring to find someone who does.

The nights are interminable again. I turn out the light at 10:00 and I’m awake again at 11, 12, 2, and sometimes in between. Restful sleep does not come until after 3:00. Then it’s dawn, and I’m awake again. With coffee reassuring me, I open this journal to continue the log of this journey.

3/12/14. Having gained back the weight I lost in the hospital, plus a couple more pounds, I’m noticing a widening girth that calls for attention. Besides the one-hour walks most days, I begin making the effort to resume sit-ups and all the rest of what I used to do fit into a pair of jeans, while hoping to reverse the new shapelessness. Then there’s at-home OT, working on my left hand and fingers to strengthen them and improve coordination.

My left hand will sometimes take instruction from my right, while it demonstrates how to hold things, e.g., where the fingers go while removing the lid from a jar of peanut butter. I’m amazed at the subtleties of grip, balance, and leverage that I never noticed before. Still, my ring and little fingers remain numb. I’m a long way from using them as I used to. Blog posts are slowing down because it takes so much longer to produce copy that is not full of typos.

Ocean surf pine
3/13/14. Yesterday was a full day with three appointments. The neurosurgeon continues pleased with my progress (and I am sure his own contribution to it; he walks on water, all the way from Iran via Dubai; and now he has news that he has been selected as a fellow at Mayo). The oncologist reports that results of genetic testing are back, and they show I am not genetically predisposed to active regeneration of cancer cells. She also adjusts my meds with fewer steroids, which will reduce the restlessness at night.

She had me doing various “drunk tests.” Touching my nose with eyes closed remains a challenge, but I surprised myself by being able to walk in a straight line with one foot placed directly in front of the other. Finally, I get another blast of radiation. To give my wife a break from driving, a friend from the neighborhood met me in front of the hospital to give me a ride home. The day is a morale boost, as the news was good, and the end game of this particular medical adventure feels like it’s being postponed again.

3/14/14. Yesterday was long and tiring, with a long desert walk in the morning, an OT appointment at 2:00 and radiation at 3:30. Evening supper for me was leftovers, while my wife went early to bed. It was lights out by 9:00.

More on the literature of spiritual uplift. Someone points me to a book called A Year to Live, which sounds maybe on topic for me. But what I find is a preachy, scolding tone and the answers to the wrong questions. They seem mostly to do with bucket lists, which to me is what ultimate issues get reduced to for the well and living. The examples given in the book are of people overturning their lives, quitting or changing jobs, and getting divorces.

A neighbor's swordfish mailbox
In these cases, the question seems to be “What are you truly yearning for?” The writer of the book speaks of “unfinished business” that prevents one from satisfying that yearning. In reply to that, I can think of nothing but to live fully and openly in the present. Maybe I am in deep denial or lack imagination, but I have no other unfinished business besides the book I've been writing on early frontier fiction. There's also the pile of them I've been wanting to eventually read. Sounds not very adventuresome, but that’s more than enough right now.

3/15/14. Yesterday brought a welcome end to a week of five radiation treatments, two OT sessions, and two consults with doctors. My spirits remain high, and if you ask me how I feel, I'm likely to say, "undaunted." I have this image of my brain busily forming work-arounds where old connections are down. Thinking of treatment as "pushback" seems less desperate than "fighting" the cancer. I keep on keeping on, looking forward to when the days are not all chopped up with medical appointments.

The most irritating aspect of this illness is how it continues to highlight my worst character traits. Out in public, I care too little about my appearance, and I'm annoyed when my wife wants me to put on a change of clothes before leaving home. I can also shift into mentally reciting a list of grievances against the world, an old habit of mind that frankly tires and diminishes me. Not to mention my ever-ready impatience and irritability.

Community center and library
3/16/14. Yesterday morning we walked around the neighborhood, nothing ambitious. The wind blew briskly, enough to take the hat off your head. But I love the sound of it in the trees, especially a huge old pine on the next street. It sounds like ocean surf. The palms also have their own rushing, rustling sigh.

We drove then to the library to pick up books. my first time there since the surgery. While there, I like to browse the sale shelves (only 25 cents for hardbacks; I usually give them a buck and tell them they charge too little) and come away this time with a one-volume set of Dashiell Hammett's novels.

Then to the post office, to pick up the mail and send off a book to a friend. After that, a stop at Vons for a short list of groceries. By then we are both too tired to fill up the car, waiting for one of the pumps too much of an ordeal for either of us. Fatigue catches us both in unpredictable ways. Once we are back home, my spirits quickly revive, though on the way I could think of nothing but lying down once I got there. But my wife's fatigue seems deeper, and I get to be the caregiver for her the rest of the day, a role that allows me to feel useful in ways that illness often robs one of.

Previously: White lily


  1. Thanks for this latest update Ron. By the way, I just noticed some good news. Your book is announced on HOW THE WEST WAS WRITTEN: Frontier Fiction, 1880-1906. Volume One.

    Unfortunately for me Kindle only but I'm hoping for a print version. Plus the Volume One sounds good. That means we will have a Volume Two also! Congratulations, your hard work was worth it. This book will give us some original research into a subject we all are interested in.

  2. Tough, man. Very tough. I also have looked for some sermons or spiritual essays that don't trigger me more to arguing than to listening. Not always easy to come by.

  3. Beautiful writing Ron. Thank you for sharing this - it's very fitting for Easter.

  4. I'm hoping the daily "pushback" is getting easier for you, Ron. If my father had been a literary type, he maybe would have a journal like this while he was bed-ridden for years. It would be interesting to see what he actually thought about it, his multiple strokes, etc..

    1. I often wanted the same from my own father and could not find the words to ask for it. They would be a strength to me now. As it is, I have an ornately framed laughing baby photo of him on my bedroom wall, where I can say "Hi, Dad" every day.

  5. Ron, I read spiritual books in difficult times, and sometimes even otherwise. The words of the mystics provides succour when, often, little else does. I'm happy things are looking good for you and I hope they continue to do so.

    On another note, I didn't know people still went to the post office to pick up their mail. Is this an option?

    1. By the way, Ron, I came to know of your book, Vol.I, through David Cranmer's blog and since I was looking forward to it, I'd no hesitation in picking up the ebook right away. As Karen says below, congratulations on getting it published.

    2. It's an option. Renting a box kept our mail delivery more secure when we did not live at our current address full time. Otherwise, it's a mailbox along the street subject to vandalism and theft.

  6. Congratulations, Ron, on getting your book into print. May you sell many copies. Going digital with it, I assume.
    There's a female theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, in this week's Time magazine who want people to seek their faith in the darkness, rather than the light. She's written books.. You might give the magazine article a once over.

    1. Thanks for the tip. To find meaning through darkness is a journey new to me but a deeply rich one.